Friday, January 30, 2009

Thoughts on Frank Bidart

I'm reading Frank Bidart's In the Western Night right now, and it's important enough that I mention it here. What immediately caught my eye:

Guilty of Dust

up and down from the infinite C E N T E R
B R I M M I N G the winking rim of time

the voice in my head said



then I saw the parade of my loves

those PERFORMERS comics actors singers

forgetful of my very self so often I
desired to die to myself to live in them

then my PARENTS my FRIENDS the drained
SPECTRES once filled with my baffled infatuations

love and guilt and fury and
sweetness for whom

nail spirit yearning to the earth

then the voice in my head said





There is a fatalism about Bidart. He seems to be continually confronting the issue: what can we choose. Not who/what we love, certainly. (What was Jesus thinking with those crazy commandments, love, forgive!?) Oh, no doubt, we can choose our acts, but not the emotions that precede them. Really? You think you can? Come off it. You think you chose by an act of the will those persons you love? If you did, you're a lot stronger than I am.

"Confessional" takes this idea even further. It's much too long (20-some pages) to type in here, but it explores the relationship between a mother and a son and forgiveness. The son discovers after the mother has died that they have not forgiven one other, despite the fact that they have not lived in outward revolt against each other. The first section ends with "forgiveness doesn't exist". Finally, someone has said it. And then "I did will to forgive her/but FORGIVENESS lay beyond the will."

So then what? Is he right? I don't know. But it does seem to be a valid question to ask. I mean, we've been asking it for millenia. We've devised complicated rituals to answer the question, can we forgive/be forgiven. Goodness, Christians believe that they can solve everything by cruxification, that somehow that will make everything else okay. Why in the world would that make everything else okay? And if you really think that it does, why do you still have a long list of people who you have not forgiven, who you cannot will yourself to forgive? My favorite theologian, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, has a sermon on this very thing, but he still believes forgiveness is an act of the will. But what if it is not, as I am beginning to suspect?

I'm not typing to make you mad, despite all evidence to the contrary. (I attempted this discussion with Gene and he said I was ruining date night. I guess we have different ideas about date night.) I'm just saying Bidart is making some very interesting assertions in his poetry, assertions worth exploring, and I'm glad to at last be reading something worth wrestling with.


Ann said...

This poem strikes a chord that caused the following long ramble.

I've been told lately that I can choose to not be the emotional person that I am, that I can choose to focus on certain things over other things regardless of my feelings. I don't buy it.

I have never known how to not feel what I feel whenever I feel it or to totally block off desire for something. Sure there is temporary diversion but to be able to choose lack of feeling? I don't think so. Take for example a food craving for chocolate cake (or insert your favorite craved item). You may choose not to eat the chocolate cake but I don't believe you can choose not to want it if it's something you love. You might be able to train yourself to live without it but the memory of the pleasure will remain, the desire will remain.

Forgiveness is tricky. I agree that it "lays beyond the will". I don't think you can force forgiveness. I don't think you can forgive someone of something you find absolutely reprehensible, something you cannot find any understanding of, or sympathy for circumstances etc. Personally, there is something I will never forgive my mother for. I can't. I will never understand her actions and I have tried. If, however, you are able to find some point of understanding of how the person got to the point of that action then forgiveness is possible. I have forgiven people that have inflicted pain on me due to understandable circumstances.

I am, of course, not speaking from a religious position as I lack affiliation with one. That may certainly add other dimensions to the argument.

Big questions worth wrestling with. Loved the poem you posted.

Charmi said...

Ann, oh, I think we do have tons of choices and ways of directing our focus. I imagine, really, as soon as we become aware of something, like an emotion, we are able to have more power over it, choose how we're going to deal with it.

Anyway, Bidart is worth reading.

Unknown said...

Brilliant post. I love Bidart.

My sense is that forgiveness (of others) cannot be willed; it comes only through making amends to others.

Charmi said...

I think one could easily write any number of thesis papers on Bidart. He's so worth reading!

So much of what I've been reading seems to lack that substance that Bidart embodies. No one seems brave enough to assert anything. Or their poetry is just about bitching.

I hope all is well with you despite this harsh winter!

Rachel said...

There is a component of both. The desire to forgive is an act of the will; the ability to forgive is an act of grace. One cannot, however, forgive, without the act of desiring to forgive.

I believe forgiveness is nearly always more for the well-being of the person forgiving than for the person being forgiven. Holding on to things will only eat away at a person, and end up embittering them.

I believe true forgiveness necessarily involves God.

R. Sanford said...

Honestly not meaning this to be some kind of direct response to Rachel's comment but rather having it happen to fall after hers--

I think Ann nailed it 100%.

One of my biggest issues with religion (granted, I have many) is that I think it allows far too many people to far too easily both feel forgiven and feel as though they have forgiven, when they've probably just done a grandly horrible job of burying.

I think being able to forgive is a tremendously admirable quality, most of the time, but I'm also not sold that it's a universally good idea. Some people and things simply shouldn't be forgiven.

Charmi said...

Good discussion. I think some good poetry can come out of it, from all sides of the issue.

Talia Reed said...

Though I don't think its easy, and there is much I have to conquer, I'm leaning with the choice thing. And I think that's a very American idea. For example, I don't believe we "fall" in love with someone. I think we make decisions about who we are going to love. And no, I don't think it's as black and white as that, but that's the one I always think of.

Charmi said...

Interesting, Talia. But the lines are getting blurred between emotion and action. And I think that is really what Bidart was saying. Although the son in the poem "Confessional" acted in loving ways towards the mother, he discovered in the end his emotions had not been altered. No force of the will would alter them.

I think Ryan makes a good point about burying and you hint at the idea when you use the word "conquer." We might think we are overcoming our emotions, but we might just be burying them.

Now, of course, this is probably where poetry comes from, (the conflict) so I'm certainly not going to try and stop anyone ;-)

SarahJane said...

That's such an interesting poem. I don't have any Bidart and I think I might need some. thanks.

Charmi said...

Sarah -- Music Like Dirt is also very good. Bidart is very interesting.